Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why privatization of government operations (especially prisons) is a really bad idea

This morning, I was listening to NPR on the way in to work when I heard their investigative report on how Arizona's horrible new "papers please" fascist-style immigration law came into existence.

The whole story is highly worth reading or listening to.

But the gist of it is: the bill was invented by the for-profit prison corporations. Think about it. For them, it's just good business. They run prisons, and get to charge the government on a per prisoner, per day basis. So the more people they can get into their prisons, the more money they make.

Their product, as it were, is incarcerated people.

Which is kind of a funny (but not ha-ha funny) business to be in. Because they can't just manufacture incarcerated people. They can't go pull people off the streets themselves. Rather, they need the government to go out and arrest, try, and convict people on their behalf.

It's pretty straightforward, really. In order for their business to grow, they need the government to arrest more and more people. So their growth model becomes "what new groups of people can we commoditize by getting the government to take their liberty away?" Easy answer: brown people. Go after the immigrants.

Listening to all that in the car this morning made me, well, pretty disgusted. But then it got me thinking. It's always this way when government services get privatized. It's a question of motive.

When "small government" types get their way and allow activities once performed by government to be turned into private, for-profit industries, it's always this way. It's inevitable. When the government runs the prisons, it's not doing so out of any desire for profit. When government runs the prisons, that's a cost sink that takes money away from roads, education, and everything else.

The incentive, then, is to keep people out of prison. Which in turn means investing in prisoner education programs, worker retraining, drug treatment, urban revitalization, Head Start, and hundreds of other such programs.

Keeping people out of prison means investing in the very things that make everyone's lives better in the first place.

But when the "small government" greed-heads get their way and privatize the prison system, the motive completely changes. They win by keeping people in prison, and by finding ways to get more people into prison. And because they bill these "services" back to the government, their motive is to find ways to make prison more expensive, not cheaper.

And what do you think is happening inside the prison? Well, for the for-profit prison company, recidivism is a good thing. It's repeat business.

But prisoner services like education and job training cost real money. The for-profit prison system will look for every way it can to cut services, while maximizing the number of people they hold and the amount of time they hold them for.

The whole point of prison is to take people who have sinned against society out of society for a while, so they can think about what they've done, and come back as better people who won't sin against us again. Seems to me that privatization, and the profit-motive that comes with it, is kind of the opposite of that.

If appeals to the long-term good of society don't move you (or, if you know they won't move your right-wing neighbor), there's always this. Privatizing government services always ends up costing you more. Always. Every single time.

Privatized prisons cost you more — even if you are a one hundred percent law obeying citizen — because you pay for those prisons through your taxes. Privatizing prisons is just a way for the owners and shareholders in for-profit prison corporations to pick the pockets of law abiding citizens.

After all, prisoners don't pay taxes.

Privatized healthcare costs you more. We all know this.

Americans pay way more for healthcare and health insurance than people who live in countries that have nationalized healthcare. We can argue the specifics all day long, but there's no denying that our money is going to corporations whose motive is profit, not health and wellness.

So they'll raise rates as high and as fast as they can, while looking for every way possible to deny service. It may be evil, but come on. It's just good business.

It's the same with Social Security. The incessant calls to privatize it amount to replacing government's motive of "enabling seniors to live with some dignity rather than in destitute squalor" with a private-sector motive of profit.

Which means exactly two things: figure out how to raise Social Security withholding rates on younger, working age citizens, while simultaneously figuring out how to reduce the benefits paid out to seniors.

It may be evil to push our parents and grandparents out onto the streets, but come on. It's just good business.

Pick any other example you want. Find me a case where the "small government" types want to privatize something, and I'll show you how it's going to cost you more and reduce everyone's overall quality of life.

Every. Damn. Time.

That's the thing, folks. Happiness is not always profitable. There are social goods — situations or services which are beneficial to the happiness of everyone in society, generally — which are fundamentally incompatible with the profit motive.

For any such thing, it simply isn't moral to supply the investment and infrastructure necessary for it through private enterprise.

It's not moral to try to supply healthcare because it kills people for profit. In a purely for-profit system, it's too easy to raise profits by denying care, and then people die.

It's not moral to privatize Social Security, because the inevitable result will be reducing the independence of seniors. That's not good for them. It's not good for their children, who are having a hard enough time making ends meet as it is without also needing to chip in for their parents' housing and care years earlier than they otherwise would have.

And it's not moral to privatize prisons, to turn the liberty of human beings into collateral damage in the relentless pursuit of profit.

Privatization is always a bad idea, because it changes the motives.

What's on the ballot next Tuesday where you live? Any initiatives, referenda, or propositions relating to privatizing any activities currently performed by your state or local government? If there are, do yourself — and your society — a favor. Think long and very, very hard, before endorsing such a scheme.

Because in the long run, you'll always pay.


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